When we’re born, we’re assigned an identity. It defines the types of clothes we’re expected to wear, the jobs we’re able to have, the lifestyle society expects us to lead. It permeates every aspect of our life. People view us based on this random, biological assignment: our gender.
Biologically, gender is our physical makeup. Men are usually bigger and hairier, while women tend to have more delicate features and curves—and there’s a few other minor physical differences. Our society uses these aspects of our bodies to decide how we should be perceived.
Culturally, your gender basically dictates your entire life. At some point, we all must discover whether or not we identify with the gender we were assigned at birth. For many, this isn’t a journey at all. They’re cisgender, meaning they identify with their birth gender. For others, though, the journey is far more complex. Some people identify with the opposite gender and make the transition to the opposite sex. For others, gender is not so black and white.
For those who don’t fall strongly on either end of the gender spectrum, there’s an entire realm of identities that lie somewhere in between: genderqueer, non-binary, and genderfluid to name a few.
Even after someone comes into their own gender identity, the hardest part is often communicating your gender to those around you.
Since many of us will never have to go through the process of finding our gender identity, at times it can be difficult to understand the thoughts of those who do. And, just like cisgender men and women, each life story is different. I decided to interview one particular friend of mine who has undergone several transitions. This is their story.
Q: When did you first begin to question the gender you were assigned at birth?
The first time I ever really began to think about myself as something other than cisgender was probably halfway through my junior year [of high school]. That was when I was first immersing myself in the trans community, getting my feet wet so to speak. I was sort of experimenting with different labels and reading about different people who had different experiences with gender.
Through that experimentation I began to examine my own gender, how it felt to be in my own skin, how I presented myself, and who I really felt I should be on the inside. At that point in time I identified as demigirl (someone who identifies partly, but not 100% as a woman). In senior year I identified as nonbinary (not female or male), then as genderfluid (gender identity varies over time) at the start of college. Now I’ve landed at somewhere around transmasculine agender (lacking strong gender identification either way, but leaning more towards male).
Looking back at my childhood and early teen years, my identity seems pretty obvious to myself. This is kind of TMI, but when I was really little, around 7 or 8, I used to look at myself after I showered and wonder if I was really a girl or not. I’d never seen a naked boy before, so I really didn’t have any reference point, but I remember myself wondering if I had a penis. That’s the first time I can remember questioning who I was.
I remember the stories of gay teens really resonated with me. From 2010 to 2012, I was obsessed with Blaine Anderson from the show Glee and secretly wished I could have been born a gay boy rather than a straight girl. That’s when I started looking into the LGBT+ community and opened a giant, gay can of worms.
Q: Can you give me a brief summary of the transitions you’ve been through?
I haven’t transitioned any way other than socially. I don’t bind my chest or have any desire to get top surgery, but I’m thinking about maybe starting testosterone my junior year.
Socially, however, I started transitioning mid junior year. I put my new pronouns (I used both she and they pronouns at the time) on my blog. That was my first step, still just testing the waters of my identity, and seeing if being called those pronouns was as comfortable as I thought it would be.
After that, I started coming out to my close friends as nonbinary my senior year, and they all did their best to refer to me with my pronouns (they/them). I started the Sexuality and Gender Acceptance Club at my high school, and worked to educate other people about being trans and used myself as an example many times.
My identity stayed pretty private until a bit of drama at my school involving graduation robes that were color coded by gender, and suddenly my whole school knew about me. I received a lot of hate and backlash over Twitter and other social media surrounding my identity. A lot of hate was thrown my way, but I didn’t let it phase me. So far my ‘transitioning’ has mainly just been coming out and correcting people.
As far as feeling more comfortable with myself, I cut my hair short, don’t shave any of my body hair, and usually don’t wear much makeup unless I want to look particularly dramatic that day.
Q: What were some of the ways people reacted to your gender identity through the years?
Soooo many different ways. Mostly supportive though. I was lucky enough to have sound such an open-minded group of friends in the middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania. My friends tried their best to use my correct pronouns, but there were always a few slip ups. It’s a learning curve.
There were some unsavory experiences though. Like I said, in my senior year I was really attacked over Twitter about my gender. What I thought was a confidential conversation had gone public and the entire school knew about me. I got tweets saying things like “What’s on your birth certificate?” “If you don’t know if you’re a boy or a girl, just look down!” “Vagina = female” and my personal favorite, “she’s only doing this to get her own bathroom.” Even while explaining what being trans meant and what my gender was to my school’s guidance counselor she responded “I just can’t see you as a boy! Androgynous maybe, but you’re not a boy.” I remember thinking that if I hadn’t worn lipstick and a skirt that day the conversation could’ve been easier.
As far as my family’s reaction, I don’t have much to say. My dad and stepmom still think I’m cisgender and I don’t think I’ll ever tell them unless they ask. When I came out to them as queer they literally said “we still love you, but we’ll do everything to make it so you’re not.” I also haven’t told my stepdad, who knows I’m not straight, but he isn’t very open-minded. I think my mom knows. I haven’t told her outright though. I’m planning on giving her a full disclosure soon. She’s more accepting and I think she’ll support me no matter what.
Q: How does changing your pronouns reflect your gender identity?
I’ve sort of made this metaphor with pronouns and clothing over the past few years. When people use ‘she/her’ for me it just doesn’t fit right. It feels like an ill-fitting dress that your parents make you wear for a formal event because it’s ‘acceptable.’ They/them and he/him just feel more comfortable, like your favorite hoodie that you can wear anywhere and feel at home.
When I started to experiment with my gender identity, pronouns were like dipping my feet in the trans pool. Trying them on myself or asking other people to use them helped me gauge my own emotional and personal reactions to being called things I’d never been called before. I really encourage people to experiment with their gender more often because if you’ve been wearing that stiff dress all your life and suddenly you put on a soft, comfortable hoodie; it feels really good.
Q: How has society’s gender stereotypes affected your gender identity?
For a while a lot of my gender expression was just a giant ‘fuck you’ to stereotypical gender roles. When I was in high school I was a very extravagant dresser, and often wore crazy outfits that looked more like they belonged on the streets of Harajuku or some obscure goth fashion magazine than in the halls of a redneck high school. I would constantly flip flop from wearing frilly dresses, wigs, and pastel stickers on my face to a general ‘tomboy’ outfit, but my gender was consistent. It didn’t matter whether I was dressed in ‘boy clothes’ or ‘girl clothes’ at the time: I still saw myself as nonbinary, completely neutral.
I think dressing to both extremes was kind of using gender stereotypes to my advantage in a way, by telling the world that I was boy, girl, and neither all at the same time. I don’t often think about how stereotypes play into and affect my identity personally nowadays, but I guess in speaking in a deeper voice, not shaving, and having short hair in an effort for others to see me as ‘masculine’ I’m playing into existing stereotypes, but I’m also doing so to feel comfortable. It’s a really blurry line that I don’t exactly know how to navigate.
Q: What has been the most difficult part of finding your gender identity?
I think the most difficult part has to be a combination of occasional self-doubt and the fact that I have to constantly prove myself. I’m a naturally self-doubting person. With both my gender and struggles with mental illness, I’m always worried I’m just making things up. When I’m in a good place I can see that this is who I really am, but if I’m in a real slump I can sometimes worry myself into thinking “What if I’ve just been making this up the whole time? Am I even really trans?”
Yes, I am really trans. And I have to remind myself, and others, of that fact on a daily basis. As someone who’s very petite and has a pretty ‘feminine’ voice and physique, I’m misgendered multiple times on a daily basis.
As any other trans person knows, coming out isn’t a one time ordeal. I have to come out daily, even multiple times a day. Sometimes to the same people I came out to yesterday. People forget my pronouns or accidentally call me a girl all the time, and correcting them every single time is draining. It really is. Sometimes it’s easier to let it slide than to have to explain yourself over and over. Being a one-person education system is harder than it is rewarding sometimes.
Being trans is being vulnerable. It’s reminding people you’re different than them every day and hoping they respect that, because if they don’t, there’s a chance you have to literally fear for your life. While I’ve never experienced much more than ignorant comments and rude words, other trans people have to endure so much more, and sometimes they don’t make it out alive. I have to remind myself that I’m lucky to be in the situation I’m in, surrounded by supportive friends and a family who loves me. I’m really lucky.
This is just one person’s tale—one person who has undergone an incredible journey to find their own identity in a world where gender is as much cultural rules as it is biological makeup.
Often, you will never be able to hear the background of a person’s gender identity. You may not understand what their reasons are for their identification. In the end, though, it’s not about knowing the ins and outs of each person’s story. Regardless of if you just met them or if they’re one of your closest friends, it’s up to you to accept every person, no matter what their gender identity might be.
Photo Credit: Google Images